WHEN A good American dies, he goes to heaven. When a really good American dies, he gets an extra two weeks in Paris. Or at least that's what one would think from the magnetic tug the city of lights has exerted on America's artistic population since the days of Ben Franklin. American Dreamer is the latest entry in the Francophile follies, a respectable representative of the intrigue and romance every lowan associates with the world most beautiful city.
Cathy Palmer (JoBeth Williams) is one such excitement-starved Middle American, a suburban housewife hooked on the trashy romantic adventures of a Modesty Blaise clone called Rebecca Ryan. Her execrable taste in literature can be excused as a casualty of her suburban lifestyle; a station wagon, two sons exuding Gary Colemanesque sass, and a husband who's idea of a romantic evening is his and hers spreadsheets.
Palmer's addiction has one redeeming feature; she knows the novels so well that she wins a trip for two to romantic Paris, paid by the publishers of her favorite pablum, and, by a piece of mysterious movie luck, her ever-vigilant husband cannot chaperone.
On her way to a Rebecca Ryan award luncheon in Paris, Palmer and fate (in the guise of a Citreon) collide in front of Notre Dame, Exit verisimilitude and enter that soap opera mainstay, selective amnesia. Palmer wakes up in a hospital, without her handbag, thinking that she is Rebecca Ryan.
From this point on, the movie veers dangerously near the plot of Romancing the Stone. She meets the son of the author of the Rebecca Ryan novels, Adam McMann (Tom Conti). He thinks she's a put-on or a practical joke. She thinks he is her fictional right-hand man Dimitri. Doubts begin springing up in McMann's mind after he and Ryan/Palmer are sniped at few times by an unknown assassin. The imitation pulp heroine thinks it's all part of a plot involving a prominent French politician (Giancarlo Grannini), who would just as soon have nothing to do with the loony American.
Confusion is heaped upon confusion as McMann vainly attempts to separate the deadly reality from the crazy fantasies of Palmer, but with no real success. Conti, with the theatrical-magic he brought to Reuben, Reuben and The Norman Chronicles, transforms the whiny, irresolute McMann he found in the script into a sexy and sympathetic British playboy. With a perfectly raised eyebrow and a fatalistic shrug, Conti is Man confronted with the inexplicable essence of uninhibited feminity. Conti is God's gift to romantic comedy, an Italo-British Cary Grant who consistently surpasses every superlative piled on his previous performances.
The capital crime of this move is that Conti is not on screen enough. The inexplicably popular JoBeth Williams hogs more screen than her role or talent really deserve. She performs with commendable competence, but really, how hard is it to play a suburban housewife? Or a female Adam West?
The direction and script also assume secondary importance when Conti is on the screen. Director Rick Rosenthal starts the film off slowly; the first quarter of the movie up to Palmer's arrival in Paris bears an embarrassing resemblance to three or four well-known television sitcoms. But Paris allows him to hit his stride, and move the movie along at a comfortably fast clip. The script by Jim Kouf and Jeff Greenwalt would not, by itself, bust any guts, but then again, with Conti on their side it does not have to.
Sure, this movie is silly. Yes, it lacks most of the cinemotographic or humanistic profoundity of Rules of the Game or The Discreet Charms of the Boutgoisie. But as Stanley Cavell will tell you, the true romantic comedy, a roadmap of one couple's pursuit of happiness in this insane world, is in essence an artistic iceberg; nine-tenths out of sight. Movies like American Dreamer will not accrue Star Wars-sized lucre, but enough Americans have good enough taste to give them a shot at profitability. The difficulty is that quality acting, writing, and directing must be invested in the film, and the ad campaign must get the message to the right audience. Unfortunately, the theme-oriented copy-cat attitude of most film executives justifies the abandonment of good films if a similar has just gone down the tubes, irrespective of their relative qualities. As long as America and Hollywood survive, the classic comic romance will live on, preferably in versions as good or better than American Dreamer.